It seems like whenever we build a high-end system it’s powered by an Intel CPU, and budget systems always run AMD parts. This month, we’re flipping the script and building a budget-oriented Intel system to see how it compares to AMD’s offerings, and to give people a glimpse of what a $650 Intel rig can throw down. For comparison’s sake, we recently built budget rigs using AMD’s new Richland APU (October 2013) as well as one with a $120 Vishera FX-6300 CPU (“ Battle of the Budget Builds ,” June 2013), and found that both chips serve their niche quite well. For this Intel build, we knew we’d go with Haswell , and wanted to run a Core i3 CPU, which typically comes with two cores and Hyper-Threading (HT), but those haven’t been released yet. Note: This article was originally featured in our December 2013 issue of the magazine. So, the next-best CPU we could get was the Core i5-4430— a quad-core CPU without HT for $180. That's a third of our budget on the CPU, which forced us to be frugal elsewhere. We also took this opportunity to try out a new microATX case from Cooler Master that retails for $50, which we felt was perfect for a budget build.
Since we’re working on a tight budget, we planned this system to be relatively bare-bones, thus allowing us to build inside the smallish Cooler Master N200 microATX chassis. This is a chassis that’s smaller than a traditional mid-tower, but larger than a traditional small-form-factor case, with plenty of room for cables and extra-long GPUs. The foundation for our build would be a motherboard from Gigabyte, the GA-B85-D3H (not to be confused with the HD3). It has a fat heatsink on the parts that usually get pretty hot, so we figured the board would be relatively stable. Other than that, it is a budget B85 board, with four SATA 6Gb/s ports, Realtek integrated sound, one PCI Express 3.0 slot, and four RAM slots that can handle up to 32GB clocked at 1,600MHz. It also features Gigabyte's DualBIOS feature, so the motherboard can use the backup BIOS if the primary one fails to boot. The Core i5-4430 isn’t overclockable, so we won’t be messing with any of that. Although the Core i5-4430 is about $30 more expensive than the A10-6800K that we tried in the AMD budget build, that CPU also wore a Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo cooler, which comes out to… about $30. So it's the same difference in the end, though CPU and integrated graphics performance will differ.
Other than that, we're trying to keep the rest of the system similar to the Richland build, to create a level playing field, so you'll see the same 60GB SSD, Corsair power supply, 1TB hard drive, Windows 8, and an optical drive.
|Case||Cooler Master N200||
|CPU||Intel Core i5-4430||$180 (street)|
Intel stock cooler
|GPU||Intel HD 4600||N/A (integrated)|
|RAM||2x 4GB Corsair Vengeance LP||$60 (street)|
60GB Mushkin Chronos MKNSSDCR60GB-7
|HDD||1TB Seagate Barracuda||
|Optical Drive||Samsung SH-S223||$15 (street)|
|OS||Windows 8 64-bit OEM||$90 (street)|
The N200 case is about 7.5 inches wide, so cable management quickly becomes an issue as soon as you begin inserting parts. As we began building, the first area of trouble we ran into was with the hard drive cage on the bottom of the chassis, which holds two 3.5-inch drives and one SSD. If we were to use the standard screw holes for the hard drive, it would have given us very little clearance to connect the SATA and power cables on the other side. So we moved the HDD forward by one hole, which gave us some extra space in the back, making it easier to store unused power supply cables out of sight. It’s a shame the hard drive cage doesn’t have rails, as installing drives is a PITA.
In order to install hard drives into the included cage, you need to attach screws to both sides of it, but there’s no way to access the cage's left side with it inside the system, so you have to remove it altogether first. To do that you need to remove two screws that secure it to the motherboard tray, then flip the case on its side to access four more screws underneath the case (pictured). With those removed, you can pull out the cage and access the holes on its left side.
There are also four built-in SSD installation points—one on top of the lower HDD cage, two on the mobo tray, and one beneath the upper 3.5-inch drive bay—but we used an adapter bracket to install our lone SSD in the 3.5-inch cage. Call us old-fashioned, but we felt it offered the cleanest wiring options. The upper 3.5-inch drive bay also holds a single drive, so despite the N200 being "only" an mATX case, you have plenty of options when it comes to storage.
A modular power supply probably would have been easier to use in such a small case, but we used the same PSU from our Richland build, so we had no choice but to find room for all the cables. The side panels each have a bulge to them, but they’re not deep enough to squeeze a 24-pin power cable behind the motherboard tray. There’s also no cutout for the 8-pin power cable, so we had to route it over the motherboard like in the old days. Since there's no window on this case, we didn't feel too pressured to make the inside look pretty, but we did break out the twist ties in a few places.
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Optical drives are still the easiest way to install Windows, so we’ll continue to use them until we’re pulling an OS from the cloud. Plus, some motherboards don't play nice when you try to boot from a USB stick, especially if it's a USB 3.0 device. To install an optical drive with this case, you need to remove the front bezel via a hidden handle at the bottom that pulls outward. Once it comes off, you squeeze two tabs on the drive bay cover to remove it. You can see from the photo that the entire front of the case is just one big mesh grill. It holds two 120mm fans, or a 240mm radiator on the inside of the chassis. Though we didn’t install a closed-loop cooler this time, it certainly can be done, but it makes for a very crowded interior. Once you put the front bezel back in place, smack it in each corner nice and hard.
We use a variety of monitors around the Lab, and during this build we happened to spot an unused 30-inch Dell with a resolution of 2560x1600 looking at us longingly. We thought it would be fun to test the system at that resolution, so we hooked it up only to find that we'd made a small oversight. The DVI connection on the back of this particular motherboard does not support dual-link DVI, it's single-link only. To distinguish the ports visually, DL has more pins in it—24 as opposed to single-link's 18. You need dual-link to get a 60Hz refresh rate at resolutions above 1080p. DisplayPort accomplishes this objective as well, but this board did not have that connector either, leaving us stranded on 1080p island. D’oh! For what it’s worth, you can get a motherboard in this price range with dual-link DVI, such as the MSI H87-G43, but that board has one fewer fan header than this Gigabyte board! Those fan headers come in handy, too, because this case has three fan mounts unused right out of the box, on the top, side, and front. The top even accepts 140mm fans, and the case comes with anti-vibration grommets.
Once we had mostly finished our build, we had to find space in the chassis to stash all of our cables, which is tricky in a case this size. Even cables that are in use need to have their middle parts tucked away. By moving our hard drive forward a bit in its drive cage, we were able to free up space behind it, into which we stuffed a lot of cables. We also took advantage of the small gap between the drive cage and the front of the case. Ideally, we would have spread these cables out behind the motherboard tray, but the side panels only bulge a few millimeters, and it didn't seem worth it to squeeze the cables that much just to clean things up, especially when there’s no case window.
One slick feature of this chassis is that the internal 120mm intake fan can be moved to the outside of the case, where it sits behind the front bezel. This is handy if you’re trying to set up a push-pull configuration on a radiator mounted inside the front of the case, though you’d need to remove the hard drive cage to accommodate such a setup.
Building systems in these small cases always poses challenges, but it wasn’t too bad this time around. It was a bit time-consuming to install the SSD and HDD, since the drive cage had to be removed, but the rest of the build was fairly painless. Once it was up and running, we were surprised by how quiet it was, despite the front of the case being nothing but mesh. You'd think some noise would leak through there, but the system was just about silent, even under full load. In fact, one time it ran for a minute or so without the CPU fan even spinning (the fan cable got caught in the blades, before we secured it with a twist tie). The case fan cables are also about 18 inches long, so they'll reach all the way from one end of the N200 to the other.
In terms of general desktop performance, we already had a good idea of what to expect since we had already tested Intel's Haswell CPU. In testing, the Core i5-4430 was able to encode videos and render hi-res panorama photos much faster than a comparably priced AMD CPU. Even when we overclocked the AMD 6800K to 4.7GHz, it couldn't keep up with a Core i5-4430 running at 3GHz.
The same can't be said for its gaming performance, though, as AMD clearly takes the crown from Intel. In general, Haswell’s HD 4600 graphics are around 40 percent slower than the AMD 6800K's graphics. Then again, the Core i5-4430's non-GPU performance outclasses either AMD chip.
In the end, going Intel or AMD at this price range really comes down to what your needs are. You can get an FX-6300 for about $120 right now and add a Radeon HD 7770 for about $75 (at least after a mail-in rebate). So, for gaming on a budget, AMD provides the best value. If you're editing HD videos and hi-res photos, though, Intel wins by a comfortable margin.
All in all, the Intel system put up a heck of a fight against the AMD builds, at least in the computing realm; not so much in gaming. The system was fast enough for basic needs though, and if we had used a motherboard with DisplayPort and/or DL-DVI, we could call this build an all-around success.
|Stitch.Efx 2.0 (sec)||
|ProShow Producer 5.0 (sec)||
|x264 HD 5.0 (fps)||9.0||
|Stalker: Call of Pripyat (fps)||8.3||8 (-33%)|
Our Richland system was a quad-core 4.1GHz A10-6800K at 4.7GHz, 8GB of Kingston DDR3/1600, on a Gigabyte GA-F2A85X-D3H motherboard. It ran Radeon 8670D integrated graphics, a Mushkin Chronos SSD, and Windows 8 64-bit.